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Period Costume at Cultra

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When the Folk Museum at Cultra first opened its doors to the public, in June 1964, the visitor guide staff were dressed in a corporate uniform of bottle green blazer (with the museum’s logo embroidered on), white shirt, and grey trousers or skirt. This uniform was the norm until September 2001 when, as part of a new ‘Living History’ initiative at the site, guide staff were issued with period costume appropriate for the interpretation of everyday life in early 1900s Ulster. Since 2001 visitors to the museum have been greeted by costumed guides undertaking a wide range of activities and traditional crafts throughout the open-air museum. This blog looks at how this uniform ‘changeover’ was achieved and how period costume at Cultra is researched, created, and worn.

So, in the words of Julie Andrews – lets’ start at the very beginning ………

Image: Visitor guides at the Ulster Folk Museum © National Museums Northern Ireland
Visitor guides at the Ulster Folk Museum © National Museums Northern Ireland

Preparations for the switch from corporate uniforms to replica costume began in Spring 2001 when textile curators at the Folk Museum were tasked with the job of researching suitable clothing, procuring fabrics and patterns, establishing a network of potential makers and devising a training programme for around 45 Visitor Guide staff. Bearing in mind the tight timescale for this (5 months) and the fact that no two people are the same height, size, shape or weight, it was an interesting challenge – to say the least! From the start it was agreed that there would be no sharing of costume (inappropriate for so many reasons) and that the museum would establish a new in-house laundry and workroom to deal with the upkeep and maintenance of costume. Once the initiative was launched, a permanent Period Costume coordinator post was established, to manage the day to day running of the workroom and to research and create new items of period costume, in collaboration with the museum’s Curator of Textiles.

The initial reaction of visitor guides to this proposed change was mixed, to be honest. It ranged from the very enthusiastic “I’ve always wanted to wear period costume –bring it on!” to the strident “no way am I wearing a full-length skirt, shawl, hat”, with those in between adopting a ‘let’s see’ approach. Early concerns from some colleagues included perceptions about the difficulty of wearing button fly trousers, the potential dangers of long skirts and open fires, and how unflattering a gathered woollen skirt might be to wear. Thankfully all the initial concerns were addressed during the training sessions and by ‘launch’ day everyone was suited, booted, and fully on board.

All replica costume made for guides at the museum has to be based on one of three references, in line with NMNI’S stated policy of authenticity in everything we do. These three references for costume are:
•  A specific museum object in store
•  A photographic reference from the extensive NMNI photographic collections
•  A published account or illustration
At least one, preferably all three, of these criteria must be fulfilled before any item of replica dress is created. Most of the period costume is made to order, using patterns and fabrics chosen by the museum staff, based on collections research.

Image: Turf cutting in County Fermanagh. HOYFM.WAG.1921 © National Museums Northern Ireland
Turf cutting in County Fermanagh. HOYFM.WAG.1921 © National Museums Northern Ireland

The first step in the process of creating a piece of period costume is to look at archive images in the extensive NMNI collection of photographs. These archives are a rich resource for the study of what real people actually wore as they went about daily life in the past. For example, the loose-fitting but high-waisted trousers, the buttoned waistcoats, collarless shirt, wool caps and boots, as seen in this image from the early 1900s, are all now part of daily costume for male visitor guides working in the rural part of the Folk museum at Cultra.

Image: Fabric sample book, 1906, from the textile firm of Robert McBride and Co., Belfast. HOYFM.76.1988a © National Museums Northern Ireland
Fabric sample book, 1906, from the textile firm of Robert McBride and Co., Belfast. HOYFM.76.1988a © National Museums Northern Ireland

Working from the photographic archives, the next step is to check the collections in store to decide what might be an appropriate choice for replication.

Then, onto choosing the right fabrics. Printed cotton fabrics in the early 1900s were more colourful and varied than you might imagine. Photographs from the time, printed in black and white, make it hard for us today to visualise everyday dress in colour.

This fabric sample book from 1906 gives a good idea of what was available at the time. It is consulted regularly to determine which fabrics the museum will choose to make into replica costume for guides. Many cotton fabrics printed today for patchwork are based on late 19th century and early 20th century archives. This makes them ideal for making up into dresses, blouses and aprons for early 1900s period costume.

Image: Patchwork bedcover in Coshkib farmhouse. © National Museums Northern Ireland
Patchwork bedcover in Coshkib farmhouse. © National Museums Northern Ireland

The domestic interiors of the open-air museum are filled with authentic furnishings, including patchwork bedcovers. Some of these have been made of suiting remnants, making them an ideal reference for everyday men’s clothing of the early 1900s. In keeping with traditional thrifty practice, replica costume worn by guides is repaired, or recycled into rag rugs and other small projects. No throwaway fashion here!

Image: A visitor guide, wearing a printed cotton blouse, printed cotton apron, and wool skirt. © National Museums Northern Ireland
A visitor guide, wearing a printed cotton blouse, printed cotton apron, and wool skirt. © National Museums Northern Ireland

Each visitor guide at the museum has their own individual wardrobe, from head to toe. This includes seasonal changes and specific outfits relating to key stories and activities. In general, the clothing is allocated in three main groups:
•  Rural dress, and everyday wear
•  Sunday best
•  Occupational wear
The town area of the museum presents a range of small businesses from the early 1900s – a dispensary, printers, post office, hardware store, corner shop, and drapers. Not to mention several churches, a school and a public house. Occupational dress is especially important in these locations, to help tell the stories of roles and traditional skills.

From time to time, where it is historically appropriate, the museum acquires ready-made items of costume for guides. Whitehill and Wilson, of Paisley in Scotland, was established in 1847 and is the last remaining weaver of Paisley shawls in the UK. The museum has a number of paisley shawls in its costume collection, including some believed to have been woven by this company in the late 1800s. Since original costume from the museum’s collection cannot be worn by visitor guides, sourcing and procuring these newly made close copies is a good alternative.

Image: A demonstration of needlework in the dressmaker’s house, Cluan Place, Ulster folk Museum. © National Museums Northern Ireland
A demonstration of needlework in the dressmaker’s house, Cluan Place, Ulster folk Museum. © National Museums Northern Ireland

The traditional craft skills associated with making costume, such as knitting, dressmaking, weaving, hat trimming, and embroidery are demonstrated on a regular basis in the museum by visitor guides in costume. These skills are used to recreate costume and accessories for daily wear, and occasionally for exhibitions where originals cannot be used, for conservation reasons.

The museum is fortunate to have on its staff a number of highly talented and experienced heritage craft workers, including the award-winning basket maker Bob Johnston, and linen weaver Roisin Aiston. Their workmanship, and knowledge of the museum’s collections, ensure that attention to detail in period costume is observed, right down to accessories. The baskets used by visitor guides are made on site by Bob, based on originals in the museum collection.

Behind the scenes - out of sight to the museum’s visitors, is the small, but busy, department that keeps the extensive wardrobe for visitor guides in tip-top condition. Since 2001 the museum’s period costume wardrobe has been supplied by a small army of local tailors, dressmakers and knitters. In recent years more of this work has been completed in-house, with some of the output of the museum’s tweed weaver, Dianne Shaw, used to make waistcoats and shawls.

Image: Dianne Shaw weaving tweed. © National Museums Northern Ireland
Dianne Shaw weaving tweed. © National Museums Northern Ireland

After months of preparation and planning the grand day for the ‘changeover’ arrived in September 2001. I confess to having a few sleepless nights beforehand but thankfully, on the day, all went smoothly. The period costume ‘project’ at the museum began in 2001 as part of a Living History initiative and has since developed into a central component of the museum’s public engagement and interpretation remit. Period costume at UFM enables us to carry stories and information from our collections to our visitors. The craft skills used to make and mend these costumes contribute to our year–round programme of activities and events.

So, the next time you visit the Ulster Folk Museum feel free to stop and chat to any of the guides. Ask about what they are wearing, feel free to compliment them on their smart suit, tweed waistcoat or woollen shawl - you might learn something new in the process and also make their day!